This is the encaustic portrait of a man who lived in Egypt when it was a province of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately we don’t know his name. It is one of a large number of encaustic or mummy protraits – the total lies in the hundreds Campbell tells me – from Greco-Roman Egypt.
It was the basis of a reconstruction illustration by the talented artist, Graham Sumner, who used to work for the Greater Manchester Archaeology Unit. Graham Sumner’s article ‘Painting a Reconstruction of the Deir el-Medineh Portrait’ can be found in Marie Louise Nosch (ed.) Wearing the Cloak Dressing the Soldier in Roman Times (Oxbow Books, 2012), pp. 117-127.
This is how Graham Sumner has portrayed the anonymous man in a reconstruction. His work is featured in a new exhibition of paintings of Roman soldiers at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston which opens on 17th August. In the image above you can see that the man is wearing a sword. The pommel of the sword handle sticks up under the right armpit and there is a rather uncomfortable looking belt decorated with studs running from the left shoulder and under the right arm. Graham’s caption to his reconstruction painting says it prevented the fabric of the tunic interfering with the sword.
So far as encaustic portraits are concerned, it was the custom in Greco-Roman Egypt to put a portrait of the dead person in position over the face of the mummy. William Flinders Petrie found a number of encaustic portraits at Hawara and they caused a sensation when they were first shown in the UK. However, they tended to be seen like European paintings as works of art and shown in art galleries. Once divorced from the context of the mummy, the portrait lost vital information such as the name, status and rank of the dead person.
Manchester Museum is very fortunate in that it has three mummy portraits that are still in their original postiion on the mummy, which makes them very important indeed. They represent a small but nonetheless significant percentage of the less than a hundred mummy protraits that still survive in situ. They offer an independent and objective means of checking how accurate a portrayal of the deceased has been made as the original appearance of the dead person can be recovered by making a facial reconstruction.
But what of the soldier himself? Unfortunately because many of the encaustic mummy portraits were treated as art objects, less attention was paid to the portrait as a vital piece of funerary evidence telling us the name and status of the deceased. Very likely some of these associations had already been lost by the time of recovery. Whatever the reason, sadly we don’t know this man’s name. However there are some very good sources, in the form of papyri, that shed light on the life of soldiers in Egypt. Some ancient Egyptian manuscripts found in the university library in Michigan provide a vivid impression of the kind of life that our soldier might have lived.
In 2003, a student of Classical Archaeology at the University of Michigan, Rob Stephan, discovered more than a dozen unpublished texts in the Papyrology Collection. The University collection contains more than 12,000 individual fragments of papyrus. The papyri Rob found were originally uncovered during an excavation of the Egyptian town of Karanis during the 1920s and ’30s led by Prof. Francis Kelsey. Kelsey had worked at Oxyrynchus with B.P.Grenfell and seen for himself how much documentation was lost by ignoring the Greco-Roman contexts on ancient Egyptian sites. He sent the papyri back to Michigan at the end of the excavation for further study. Apparently the papyrus documents that Rob Stephan were not previously known. They were found under a stairway in a house during the excavation of Karanis.
From our point of view what is really interesting about this discovery is that the letters were written to a retired Roman soldier, Tiberianus, who settled in Karanis in Egypt, about 200 miles south-west of Cairo, during the early second century AD. Admittedly this was some time earlier than the time when the man on our encaustic portrait was alive but essentially this archive correspondence allows us to reconstruct a social context for our soldier.
The archive consists largely of letters he exchanged with a number of other individuals, in particular Claudius Terentianus who refers to himself as Tiberianus’ son. The relationship isn’t necessarily a biological father-son relationship, however. Another man Ptolemaios is also described in the Karanis archive as father of Terentianus. Was Tiberianus something like a guardian to Terentianus? Both men have Roman names and were stationed in Egypt during the Roman occupation. However, the letters are written in Greek, the everyday language used by non-Egyptian communtiesin Egypt, not Latin.
Like the famous Vindolanda tablets from northern Britain, the letters reveal the everyday realities of life in the Roman world, particularly for a soldier in the Roman army. For example, the young soldier wrote home to ask for boots and socks to keep his feet warm during a cold winter and to ask his father for permission to marry his native Egyptian girlfriend. Terentianus also tells how he is being sent to Alexandria to quell riots. Tiberianus, was clearly well-read because one of the papyri is a fragment of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In other words, Tiberianus, could read Greek literature, suggesting that he came from an educated family, and could read several different languages. He was must have been part of the social elite in the community of Keranis at the time.
In drawing upon the wonderful archive of letters from Keranis to provide a biography for the soldier who appears in the encaustic protrait displayed at the Manchester Museum, I have taken a lead from the inspiring work carried out at the John Rylands library. That project brought together the library’s papyrus collections with portraits from this museum. The students of Thomas Whitham Sixth Form College, Burnley, were invited to ‘voice’ a particular person based on what was known about his or her life, their family relationships and standing in society, working under the guide of academics and graduate students from Classics, and Religions and Theology at the university. You can see the short film about this work at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bd-OJkLBTww
I have tentatively linked Graham’s reconstruction of the Museum’s encaustic protrait (no.11036) with the letters of Terentianus from Karanis as a way of giving him a plausible social context but it would only be fair to point out that Graham has also painted a dedicated reconstruction of Terentianus. It can be seen on page 118 of Graham’s article in Wearing the Cloak (see above for reference). You’ll also find a short account of Terentianus in Richard Alston’s Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt (Routledge, 1995).
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More on the lives behind our Roman Period mummy portraits…
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